I pitched my tent at the Browns Gap campsite, only about 20 yards from the AT. Then unrolled my sleeping bag, and tossed it inside the tent, along with my nighttime needs: flashlight, foam pillow, some fresh clothes, my journal, and a yellowed copy of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
I set up my stove on a flat rock, and found a bigger rock to use as my dinner chair. Quickly got some water boiling, dumped in my packet of Ramen noodles, and hunched over the pan with my spoon poised. Then I heard a noise behind me.
Turning around, I saw a young woman come sidling down the trail, swinging two trekking poles. She either didn’t see me, or decided to ignore me, because she continued toward the road crossing a half mile away. It was getting near twilight, and I wondered if she’d be able to find a decent campsite, since I hadn’t seen much between here and Dundo Picnic Grounds several miles back.
Ramen noodles ain’t gourmet, but, for me, it was a feast. I’d covered over 17 miles that day, and I was as tired and sore as a pack mule. I also had some serious chafing on my inner thighs due to sweat-soaked underwear. After supper, I hung my bear bag high up on the log beam, and scrubbed my skillet, using just my fingers and a little water. I packed my skillet in my backpack, which I leaned against a tree. The skillet had a slight residue from the noodles. But I wasn’t too concerned.
I smeared some antiseptic lotion on my thighs, then crawled into my tent. Too tired for Huck and Jim, I waited for darkness to fall while laying spread-eagled on my back. Then clicked off my flashlight as a multitude of insects began their nightly symphony.
It was a long while before I fell asleep. I was buzzing from the day’s activities, and one alpha cricket kept an incessant screeching for hours on end. But eventually I fell into a deep, deep slumber.
At home I wear earplugs. They help me sleep more soundly. But I promised my wife I wouldn’t use them out here in the woods. So the sound that awoke me was loud and unmistakable.
Still spread-eagled on my back, in the midst of some weird, cozy dream, my eyelids suddenly shot open. “Oh, boy. That’s no cricket outside my tent.” It was a combination of sniffs, snorts, and grunts. Beastly and guttural. And it was right outside my tent’s mosquito netting, which was at my head. Later, I remember thinking it sounded like a gigantic pig. But there were no wild pigs in these mountains.
I listened to the snorting for a few seconds. “The only animal around here that could make those baritone notes is a large bear,” I thought.
I recalled something I’d read about loud noises helping to scare off bears.
“HEY, WHAT’S GOIN’ ON!!!?” I yelled in a shaky voice (not expecting a reply).
There was a spooky silence for about a second. Then what sounded like a locomotive crashing through the brush. Then silence again.
I lay still for about five minutes. I turned on my flashlight and glanced at my watch: 3:02 a.m. I think I was more sleepy than scared. The damn bear had awakened me from one of my best sleeps in days. But, eventually, I strapped my flashlight on my head, unzipped the netting, and stepped into the clearing.
I first checked my backpack, which was about 30 feet from my tent. “Looks ok.” Then I walked a short distance to the right, over to the bear beam. I shone my flashlight into a void of blackness. “Bear bag undisturbed.” Everything seemed fine. The cicadas continued their rhythmic drone. But there were no other sounds.
I ducked back into my tent, but not before pulling out an old fishing knife that was buried in my pack. I knew I’d probably never use it, but it gave me a sense of security. Didn’t help much. I remained wide awake until the first rays of sunlight
I’m not sure why the bear got so close to my tent. Certainly he smelled me and my sweaty clothes and skin (if not the antiseptic lotion). Maybe he was attracted by my skillet. I hadn’t used soap on it, but it was still fairly clean other than the slight film on the surface, and I’d stuck it deep into my pack. He may have smelled my bear bag. All foodstuffs were wrapped in either plastic or foil. But supposedly a bear can detect human food from up to a mile away. So who knows?
I felt like a zombie from lack of sleep. But I knew that once I hit the trail, I’d be ok. After packing up my gear and chomping on a Pop-Tart, I looked around for telltale signs of my nighttime guest. The only evidence was a small patch of dirt that looked like it may have been clawed up. It was about 20 feet from the head of my tent. Hard to believe I was that close to the beast.
As I started down the trail, I had a humorous thought: “It’s too bad I never saw him. We might have hit it off.” I wasn’t more than a hundred yards from my campsite when I heard the now-familiar crashing sound. I looked to the right and glimpsed a large, black form pounding through the undergrowth, over the hillside. He turned his head, once, then disappeared. I gripped my camera tightly for about five minutes, hoping he’d peek over the hill. But he never did.
Looking back, I’d probably invaded his feeding grounds earlier that night, and he was waiting for me to leave the next morning. The homemade bear beam was there for a reason.
So I did see him. And, he saw me. He was an adult bear, and black as the previous night’s darkness. He was the second bear I’ve seen in the wild. I saw one in the foothills outside Boulder, Colorado in 1983, while hiking with a friend. But that encounter wasn’t nearly as, shall we say, “intimate.” Now I can claim to have seen wild bears on both sides of the Mississippi. Could there be a grizz in my future?? Do I want one in my future??
Three days later, on Labor Day, I arrived at Skyland, the end point of my hike. I met a lot of nice people between Browns Gap and there: Rob and Paul at rain-soaked Hightop Hut; the couple from Charlotte whom I met at Big Meadows Campground; Katie and her “pack dog;” not to mention the Honeymoon Hikers and Jackson. The Shenandoah AT around Labor Day sees many visitors, which is good in some ways, but bad in others. With the popularity of books and movies like Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” and Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” more and more people are taking to the woods and trails. It’s great that folks are shedding the shackles and manufactured pleasures of the cities and suburbs, and finding some spiritual peace in places “where things work like they’re supposed to work.” But where there are crowds, there are problems. The trail litter I saw each time I approached Skyline Drive is ample proof. Not to sound preachy, but hopefully the Millennial Generation will use their smartphones to protect the wild places better than my generation and my parents’ generation did.
At about 7 p.m. outside crowded Skyland Lodge, my driver Dubose Egleston Jr. pulled up, his yellow pickup plastered with signs advertising his shuttle service. I loaded my gear in the truck bed and hopped in front. Dubose was interesting. Short and pudgy, he talks with a sometimes incomprehensible Southern accent, and as if he’s chronically short of breath. Dubose relishes conversation (and Coors beer), and at one time he served on the Waynesboro City Council (“Ah never talk ‘bout national politics. Gits ya into trouble. But ah’ll talk yer ear off ‘bout local and state politics”).
Dubose has been shuttling hikers for 13 years, and estimates he’s hauled several thousand of them. On our drive back to Waynesboro, he told me about some of the more memorable ones: the guy he picked up at the airport who wore a three-piece suit and penny-loafers, and planned to buy all his gear at Wal-Mart (“He gave me the creeps”).
Also, the mysterious man who carried nothing but a white duffel bag (“He never said what was in it, and I never asked. He was creepy, too”). And the guy he called “Rambo,” who wore full camouflage, a handgun, and a knife the size of a bayonet (“He looked like he was goin’ into battle. We didn’t talk much. Just ‘bout the weather”).
I told him about my bear encounter at Browns Gap.
“Ah shuttled two young women from Wisconsin one time,” he said. “They were real ‘cited ‘bout hikin’, but tole me the only thing they were ‘fraid of was bears. They had convinced themselves they were goin’ to be attacked by a bear.”
“I said ‘Lemme get some gas here, an ahm goin’ to set you straight.’ After ah got back in my truck, I tole ‘em ‘Black bears ain’t the same as grizzly bears. They don’t attack people.’ I said ‘There has never been a bear attack on humans in the state of Virginia.’”
“What did they say?” I asked.
“You’d a thought ah lifted five pounds offa each of their shoulders!” he said. “They were so relieved to hear that. They practically threw their arms around me. Ah don’t know what it is, but somewhere ‘tween the Midwest and here, people get this notion that black bears are vicious man-eaters. It just ain’t true.”
I asked Dubose if he heard from them after their hike.
“Yep. They couldn’t git over what ah tole ‘em ‘bout bears. After they got home to Wisconsin, they sent me a big block’a cheese. That was nice. But ya’ll take a look at me. Cheese is the last thing ah need.”